WINDSOR, ONT. -- A series of interviews conducted by researchers at the University of Windsor has painted a grim picture of what it’s like to be a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research began in 2020, when a team of UWindsor researchers interviewed 36 registered nurses working in Windsor or Michigan.

At that time, the pandemic was relatively new and there was still a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

The latest findings come from a series of 19 interviews, conducted over recent weeks, almost exactly one year after the initial interviews.

“This year, our interviews were a lot more grim,” says lead researcher, assistant psychology professor Dana Menard. “Our participants were almost universally tired, burned out, angry, depressed and not really reporting that light at the end of the tunnel anymore.”

Menard, along with professor Kendall Soucie and nursing professors Jody Ralph and Laurie Freeman, discovered 17 months into the pandemic, some nurses are now reaching their breaking point.

Menard reports a lot of the symptoms felt by nurses are at “sub-syndromal levels,” similar to, but not severe enough for a clinical diagnosis as a clinically recognized syndrome. She says these are caused by an accumulation of different stressors over time.

“Now it’s just this endless grind of work and the units are mostly understaffed, and they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, so they’re just frustrated,” she says.

Menard also points to wage disparities between new hires and existing employees as a cause of resentment.

“Travel nurses come in with high hourly rates... new nurses are getting new sign on bonuses, and yet there’s no money for retention of people who have been there for a year,” Menard says.

She adds therapy isn’t a catch-all solution because the problems nurses face today can’t be handed quickly or easily in a few sessions.

“If you go into work every day and you feel like the patient-nurse ratio is unsafe, you’re just overloaded, there’s no amount of yoga you can do to feel better about that,” says Menard.

According to the study, that frustration is spilling over into people leaving the profession, with some telling the authors they are just counting down the days until retirement.

Menard worries about the long-term effect this will have — not only on today’s nurses — but also what rapid attrition could have on the entire healthcare system.

“There’s potentially a generation’s worth of received wisdom that might get lost here in the transition and that’s a huge loss to the healthcare system beyond just COVID,” Menard says. “That’s something we could still be feeling 20-25 years from now.”

Windsor Regional Hospital officials declined an interview until they have a chance to review the study, but offered a statement.

“Along with other healthcare organizations, we agreed to promote our nurses to voluntarily participate in the study. We are glad a segment of nurses who work in both Ontario and the United States participated. We look forward to being shared detailed results and seeing if we can use for future planning,” Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj said in the statement.

The study authors believe systemic change is needed, starting at the ministry level.

The research was funded by the WE-Spark Health Institute, a research partnership with the University, St. Clair College, Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital and Windsor Regional Hospital.

The researchers plan to share the results with employers and publish the articles in academic journals.